The number of people in the U.S. diagnosed with substance abuse has grown by 70% between 2001 and 2009. Researchers believe that some of this increase may be due to a surge in painkiller addiction.
"We know that increases in prescription drug use are a big part of what's going on nationally. I also think - in our study - the availability of effective treatment is a big part of it as well and likely drawing people into care," said the study's lead author Dr. Joseph W. Frank, from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
The new research, which analysed data from two national surveys shows an estimated 7.4 million more people visited a doctor for drug or alcohol abuse in 2009 than in 2007.
This resulted in a drastic increase in drug and alcohol addiction diagnosis. The number of people diagnosed with painkiller addiction alone increased from 772,000 to 4.4 million. The NHS has also said that the UK is seeing a growing number of painkiller addictions.
"This finding is consistent with trends in substance use disorder-related utilization at the nation's community health centers and emergency departments and, sadly, use of its morgues," the study's authors wrote in the Archives of Internal Medicine on Monday.
Many people with a painkiller addiction start out as a chronic pain patient. They are prescribed medication to control their pain and this can cause a spiral into addiction. Often people are prescribed medications with a high rate of addiction and they may not know the risks of taking these sorts of prescriptions over a long period.
In the U.S. there were three times as many opioid overdose deaths in 2008 than in 1988. The research suggests that the U.S. has around 22.5 million people dependent on alcohol or drugs.
The researchers believe that there is a positive side to their findings. The numbers of prescriptions for medications that treat addiction have gone up at around the same level as addiction diagnosis. More importantly, people are seeking out their doctors for treatment. This means people are more open to help and treatment.
This means that many of these new addicts are looking for help rather than languishing in denial or unable to find treatment. That makes the growing number of addicts much more manageable.